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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Carson McCullers: “delicately sensed ironic knowledge”

Carson McCullers died 43 years ago today, at the age of 50, in Nyack Hospital after suffering a stroke.

In 1940, only 22 years old and having published just one story, McCullers burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Two years earlier, her writing teacher had heard about the new Houghton Mifflin Fiction Fellowship Award and suggested McCullers submit the outline and completed chapters of her novel-in-progress. She didn’t win first prize—but she did win a publishing contract.

When she arrived in New York in June 1940 to promote her book, she found copies stacked in bookstore windows next to her own blown-up image. She was the new sensation. The Chicago Tribune review was typical: “There is not only the delicately sensed need that one might expect youth to know but an even more delicately sensed ironic knowledge.” Reviewing for The New Republic, Richard Wright found something quite unusual in this work by a young writer from a small town in Georgia:
To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.
During the next ten years she wrote three major novels. Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, and Ballad of the Sad Café. She converted Wedding into a popular and critically acclaimed play that launched the Broadway career of Julie Harris, who reprised her role in the 1952 movie.

Some critics pigeonhole McCullers as a master of Southern Gothic. Assessing her career in The New York Review of Books in 1974 Ellen Myers found that too limiting:
No writer of our time worked more seriously with Gothic forms or created more haunting monsters of ambivalence than Carson McCullers . . . It has long been a critical commonplace to explain the Gothic strain in Carson McCullers, who came from Georgia, as belonging to the southern American Gothic school of which William Faulkner is the notorious advertisement. But there is abundant evidence of McCullers’s participation in a tradition at least as feminine as regional.
McCullers could sometimes be notoriously prickly. One of her biographers, Josyane Savineau, describes her as “sickly, paralyzed, alcoholic, and depressed” but in a Washington Post review Jonathan Yardley echoed a judgment held by many of her friends:
McCullers was that true rarity, a born writer. She had to write, and it is reasonable to assume that she came up short in other aspects of her life because they simply didn't matter to her the way writing did.
In 2004, sixty-four years after it was first published, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. For a few weeks in May it was the #1 bestseller in the country with some 700,000 copies in print.

Of related interest:
  • Variety recently reported that Deborah Kampmeier is at work making a movie of Sarah Schulman’s play Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate).
  • Waiting Room Aquarium quotes Charles Bukowski’s poem "Carson McCullers" as part of a recent appreciation.
  • The Carson McCullers Center blog recently announced plans for the February 2011 Carson McCullers Conference.
  • Watch a trailer for Dan Griffin’s work-in-progress documentary about Carson McCullers with reminiscences by Tennessee Williams, Horton Foote, and others.

Related LOA works: Carson McCullers: Complete Novels; Southern Women Writers Set

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and How to Sell a Banned Book

Since 1982, bookstores and libraries across the country have celebrated Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2), commemorating the First Amendment and the freedom to read. The campaign also focuses attention on the harm caused by actual or attempted efforts to censor, suppress, and ban works of literature from schools and libraries. And 125 years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn helped start all the ruckus.

When Mark Twain heard that the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts had banned Huckleberry Finn just weeks after it was published, he shrewdly saw it as a great advertising opportunity. On March 18, 1885, the New York Herald reported, perhaps a bit cheekily, that the library committee offered reasons “weighty and to the point”:
One of the Library Committee, while not prepared to hazard the opinion that the book is "absolutely immoral in its tone," does not hesitate to declare that to him "it seems to contain but very little humor." Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was "couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect" and that "all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions." The third member voted the book "flippant" and "trash of the veriest sort." They all united in the verdict that "it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating," and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.
On April 4, the Hartford Courant published Mark Twain’s reaction, which he wrote in the form of a letter responding to the Concord Free Trade Club’s invitation to become an honorary member:
. . . a committee of the public library of your town have condemned and excommunicated my last book and doubled its sale. This generous action of theirs must necessarily benefit me in one or two additional ways. For instance, it will deter other libraries from buying the book; and you are doubtless aware that one book in a public library prevents the sale of a sure ten and a possible hundred of its mates. And, secondly, it will cause the purchasers of the book to read it, out of curiosity, instead of merely intending to do so, after the usual way of the world and library committees; and then they will discover, to my great advantage and their own indignant disappointment, that there is nothing objectionable in the book after all.
Banned Book Week continues the spirit of Twain’s response. Although Huckleberry Finn didn't make the top ten this year (it did in 2007), the Jacket Copy blog recently listed the most-challenged books based on the 460 challenges reported in 2009 to the American Library Association. The ALA has created a kind of honor roll: a page itemizing some of the most “frequently challenged classics,” with the reasons and the outcomes. The honorees range from Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin to As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner to Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. Another list, only partly overlapping, can be found on Banned-books.com, and a state-by-state listing of events celebrating Banned Books Weeks is available on the ACLU’s site.

Pick a banned book to read this week.

Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library; Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959-1995; 20th-Century African American Authors Set

Monday, September 27, 2010

John Updike on Ted Williams

Fifty years ago, on September 28, 1960, Ted Williams took the field for the Red Sox in Boston’s Fenway Park for the last time. Over the previous 21 seasons Williams had built legendary stats that rank him as one of the best ballplayers ever. He remains the last player in Major League Baseball to bat over .400 in a single season (.406 in 1941). His career batting average of .344 is the highest of anyone with 500 or more home runs.

Boston fans nicknamed him The Kid, the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, and The Thumper—but they didn’t always love him. In Williams’s first season in 1939 he wowed them by leading the American League with 145 RBIs, hitting .327 and tipping his cap after each of his 31 homers. But in 1940 when Fenway fans booed him for making an error and then striking out, Williams chafed. As he wrote in My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life: “I vowed that day I’d never tip my hat again.”

Williams was a childhood hero to John Updike, who as a young man was among the sparse 10,455 fans gathered for The Kid’s last home game. Updike’s account of that game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, which appeared three weeks later in The New Yorker, was the only time he ever wrote about baseball. Yet it has become, in Roger Angell’s words, “the most celebrated baseball piece ever.” “It’s not too much to say that Hub Fans changed sportswriting,” Charles McGrath wrote this past weekend.

Updike died in January 2009, shortly after revising Hub Fans for publication as a book by The Library of America. In the essay, he describes what Williams meant to him:
No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.
The game’s drama climaxes in the eighth inning when Williams takes his final at bat. On the third pitch Williams swings:
... and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.
Williams rounds the bases, head down, and dashes to the dugout, which leads to the essay’s most quoted lines:
He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted ''We want Ted'' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.
Christopher Lydon recalls Updike talking about the ever in-character Williams post-baseball:
Updike said he met Ted Williams in person a few years later and that Williams admired him profusely. "Real talent," Ted said in effect. "With that sort of gift you could actually be doing something useful..."

"Like what?" Updike asked the Splinter.

"Like save the Atlantic salmon!" Ted roared, again like a god, but angry this time.
Of related interest:
  • Tom Singer writes about Williams’s last game on the Red Sox website, which includes footage of his final at-bat.
  • John Updike fans will be interested to hear that Alvernia University will host the first biennial John Updike Society Conference this weekend.
  • In the video below, watch Ted Williams appear on a 1954 episode of the game show “What's My Line?”

Related LOA works: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams (includes new preface and “Ted Williams, 1918–2002”; Baseball: A Literary Anthology

Friday, September 24, 2010

William Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury: It’s good that he didn’t wait “until publishing grows up”

Although William Faulkner was born toward the end of the nineteenth century (on September 25, 1897), the history of the publication of his most famous work, The Sound and the Fury, suggests he might have been right at home with the displays on the iPad, Kindle, and Nook.

His editor for The Sound and the Fury was Ben Wasson, a friend of Faulkner’s from the University of Mississippi. Wasson had migrated to New York to become a writer but his life changed when he started helping out his old friend. Even though he had never been a literary agent, Wasson succeeded in placing Flags in the Dust by “Bill” Faulkner with editor Harrison Smith at Harcourt. And, even though he had never edited a manuscript before, when Harcourt asked Wasson to cut Flags by twenty-five percent in two weeks, he did. He reports Faulkner’s reaction in his memoir, Count No ‘Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner: “You’ve done a good job. It ought to suit them.” Harcourt published the edited version as Sartoris in 1928.

When Harrison Smith left Harcourt to form Cape & Smith in December 1928, he hired Wasson. One of Wasson’s earliest acquisitions as a first-time editor was The Sound and the Fury. Months before, he had been the first person to read the manuscript. As he tells it in his memoir, Wasson turned in the edited version of Flags and the next morning Faulkner came to his room and dropped a large envelope on the bed: “Read this one, Bud. It’s a real son of a bitch.... This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write.” The next morning their enthusiastic discussion turned to the Benjy chapter. Wasson said he found it hard to follow. Faulkner agreed it was “demanding” but:
If I could only get it printed the way it ought to be with different color types for the different times in Benjy’s section recording the flow of events for him, it would make it simpler, probably. I don’t reckon, though, it’ll ever be printed that way, and this’ll have to be the best, with the italics indicating the changes of events.
The readability of the Benjy section kept bothering Wasson. In editing the novel he decided without consulting Faulkner to change all the italics to roman type and indicate time changes by line spaces. Faulkner first learned of this when he received the galley proofs. This prompted a long and scathing rebuke from Mississippi, of which the following is an excerpt:
I think italics are necessary to establish for the reader Benjy’s confusion; that unbroken-surfaced confusion of an idiot which is outwardly a dynamic and logical coherence.... I wish publishing was advanced to use colored ink for such.... But the form in which you now have it is pretty tough. It presents a most dull and poorly articulated picture to my eye. If something must be done, it were better to rewrite this whole section objectively, like the 4th section. I think it is rotten, as is. But if you won’t have it so, I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it. Anyway, change all the italics.... And don’t make any more additions to the script, bud. I know you mean well, but so do I.
The Sound and the Fury was published on October 7, 1929, with surprisingly few typographical errors. In the early thirties the Grabhorn Press proposed a new edition with the Benjy section in three different colors to indicate time shifts. Newsweek writer Malcolm Jones, who also wondered recently what Faulkner might have done with e-books, noted that the author even prepared a copy for this edition, but the publisher “deemed the idea too expensive, and somehow Faulkner’s marked-up copy was lost, making it one of the missing grails of antiquarian book collectors.”

Read more at the official William Faulkner website.

Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Robert Bloch owes to H. P. Lovecraft

Horror and mystery writer Robert Bloch, best known as the author of Psycho, the 1959 novel on which Alfred Hitchcock based his classic film, died sixteen year ago today at age seventy-seven. Bloch outlived his mentor H. P. Lovecraft by thirty years, but the four years their lives overlapped made a crucial difference to Bloch’s life and career. In a 1983 interview with Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier Bloch described how much as a teenager he enjoyed the magazine Weird Tales—and how frustrated he was at not being able to find stories by his favorite writer, H. P. Lovecraft, from past issues:
So, I wrote to Weird Tales and I wrote to Lovecraft in care of them to ask whether or not he knew where I could get some of these stories that I'd read about. He told me that he'd be glad to lend me any copies of any of his stories. So, we got into correspondence.

In about the fourth letter he said, “There's something about the way you write that makes me think that perhaps you'd be interested in doing the same thing. Would you like to write some stories? I'd be glad to comment on them.” So, naturally, how could I resist? I wrote several stories which were very bad, and he didn't criticize them, he praised them. Which was just the kind of encouragement I needed.

When I got out of high school at seventeen, I bought a second hand typewriter, I sat down and I began to work. Six weeks later I sold my first story to Weird Tales. Lovecraft and I remained in close contact until the day he died in 1937.

R. Lofficier: Would you say that you owe your career to him?

Bloch: I most certainly do! And I've never ceased to be grateful to him for it.
They never met and Bloch would later discover that Lovecraft had numerous protégés he nurtured in this way and called The Lovecraft Circle. An incurable insomniac and recluse Lovecraft wrote thousands of letters late at night, and his letters to Bloch are collected in H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Robert Bloch.

One of the stories Bloch wrote while Lovecraft was alive featured Lovecraft as a character, killed by a monster. Weird Tales required Bloch to get the victim's permission before publishing the story, and Lovecraft authorized Bloch “to portray, murder, annihilate, disintegrate, transfigure, metamorphose, or otherwise manhandle the undersigned in the tale entitled THE SHAMBLER FROM THE STARS.” In November 1935 Lovecraft responded in kind with “The Haunter of the Dark,” in which young Robert Blake (living at Bloch's actual address) is killed by an alien. He dedicated the story to Bloch.

Although Bloch would go on to develop his own distinctive voice and style (what S. T. Joshi calls “a union between the horror tale and the mystery or detective story”), he frequently acknowledged Lovecraft’s influence and featured him as a character in several other stories. Bloch opens “The Shambles of Ed Gein” (1962) by invoking Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House,” because mass murderer Ed Gein, the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho, lived in one of the “scary, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods” so often described by Lovecraft. Bloch set his most extended tribute, the 1978 novel Strange Eons, in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology (includes “The Shambles of Ed Gein”); American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (includes “The Cloak” by Robert Bloch); H. P. Lovecraft: Tales

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: The path to the Emancipation Proclamation

Right: First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, painted by Francis Carpenter in 1864.

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring that on January 1, 1863, slaves would be free in all areas still in active rebellion against federal authorities. The proclamation did not address the status of slavery in the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—states that had not seceded from the Union. The final version, signed on January 1, specified ten states in which it would apply. Some have criticized the Proclamation for achieving little—for freeing slaves only in areas over which the government had no control. What these critics miss, according to Harold Holzer, is an awareness of the tremendous impact the proclamation had in its day—and the anguished path Lincoln took to find the right time to make the proclamation public.

Lincoln first introduced his idea of making an emancipation decree at a meeting of his cabinet on July 22, 1862. Secretary of State William Seward raised the concern that with the war going so badly, such an act would be received as “a cry for help—a last shriek on the retreat.” Seward proposed postponing any such proclamation until the Union could achieve a victory on the battlefield. Lincoln agreed, conceding that he didn’t want it to seem like a “Pope’s bull against the comet.”

Unbelievable as it may seem to us today, the Cabinet kept the prospect of the imminent emancipation of slaves a secret for the next two months. So it was on August 19, when editor Horace Greeley wrote a scathing “open letter” to Lincoln in The New York Tribune, calling on the president to free the slaves as a way of weakening the Confederacy, Lincoln responded:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
It would not be until September 17, when General George B. McClellan’s army fought Robert E. Lee’s forces at Antietam—the bloodiest one-day battle in American history—that Lincoln would get his opportunity. While the battle’s outcome was inconclusive, it was enough of a victory for Lincoln. Five days later, Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet and declared (according to Secreatary of Navy Gideon Welles’s diary entry for the day) that “he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” The Proclamation gave the North the moral high ground and changed its war objective. There could no longer be a compromise to “save the Union” by preserving slavery. The war would not end until the South was defeated.

Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set); Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Henry James as a fictional character

Updated below (9/24)

This month’s publication of What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper, by Paula Marantz Cohen, renews our wonder at the enduring appeal of Henry James as a fictional character. James of course would not approve. In 1914 he admonished his nephew:
My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the postmortem exploiter.... I have long thought of launching, by provision in my will, a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare's own on any such as try to move my bones.
Nor would contemporary accounts of how he spoke seem to recommend him. Here is 25-year-old Virginia Woolf describing in a letter her meeting with the 64-year-old James in 1907:
Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye, it is like a child’s marble, and said, “My dear Virginia, they tell me—they tell me—they tell me—that you—as indeed being your father’s daughter nay your father’s grandchild—the descendant I may say of a century—of a century—of quill pens and ink—ink—ink-pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me—ahm m m—that you, that you, that you write in short.”
Yet, as Cynthia Ozick wrote in 1986: “Mysteriously, with the passing of each new decade, James becomes more and more our contemporary—it is as if our own sensibilities are only just catching up with his.” One of James’s fictionalizers, David Lodge, thinks this new subgenre could be seen either “as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the ‘anxiety of influence’.” J. Russell Perkin concurs and believes that “Henry James is an exemplary hero as man of letters: he combines an oeuvre of Victorian amplitude with a modernist sense of artist vocation.”

Whatever the reason, we count no fewer than seven other novels since 2002 featuring James himself or a James-inspired character:
  • Felony: The Private History of “The Aspern Papers” (2002), by Emma Tennant, examines how James’s long and mysterious relationship with the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson affected his writing and considers the possibility that James was responsible for Woolson’s suicide.
  • The Master (2004), by Colm Tóibín, opens with the failure of James's play Guy Domville in 1895 and ends with his move to a new home in Rye, England in 1899.
  • Author, Author (2004), by David Lodge, imagines Henry James in his deathbed in 1915, reviewing and reliving scenes from his life.
  • The first of the three stories in The Pagoda in the Garden (2005), by Wendy Lesser, features Charlotte, a successful novelist similar to Edith Wharton, who visits her revered mentor, the James-like Roderick, at his country estate near Cambridge in 1901.
  • The Typewriter’s Tale (2005), by Michael Heyns, recreates the social circle around James and Wharton, through the eyes of his typist Frieda Wroth. (Heyns wrote an article for Prospect Magazine about his difficulties finding a publisher because of the “spate of novels about Henry James.”)
  • In Lions at Lamb House (2007), by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., William James, concerned about his younger brother’s eccentricities, asks Sigmund Freud to visit him in Rye in 1908.
  • The whimsical mash-up The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers (2008), by Richard Liebmann-Smith, conjures Henry and Williams James aboard a train stopped in Missouri by robbers Frank and Jesse James, who turn out to be their long-lost brothers Rob and Wilky.
And this list omits The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst and A Jealous Ghost (2005) by A. N. Wilson, novels in which the main characters are obsessed with Henry James.

Update (9/24): Two readers reminded us of two other works of fiction that feature Henry James as a character (and we belatedly remembered a third, or should we say eleventh?):
  • Nicholas Birns (New School professor; The Tropes of Tenth Street): In Henry James’ Midnight Song (1993), by Carol de Chellis Hill, Edith Wharton and Henry James become entangled in a series of murders, one of them at the home of Sigmund Freud, in fin de siècle Vienna.
  • Larry Dark (director, The Story Prize): In the title story of Dictation: A Quartet (2004), by Cynthia Ozick, the two secretaries who take dictation from Henry James and Joseph Conrad in London conspire to fool the world with a literary joke.
  • Henry James turns in cameo appearances in the opening and closing scenes of Hotel de Dream (2007), by Edmund White, which recreates the last days of writer Stephen Crane in 1900.
Related LOA works: Henry James: Complete Stories; Henry James: Essays on Literature, American Writers & English Writers (includes his essay on Constance Fenimore Woolson)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Maxwell Perkins: editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell, and Thomas Wolfe

Today is the 126th birthday of publishing legend Maxwell Perkins. In a career spanning thirty-six years as an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Perkins discovered and published three of the giants of twentieth-century literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. He inspired a mostly unswerving loyalty in his authors. No editor has ever had more books dedicated to him—68 at the time of his death. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg explains why:
His literary judgment was original and exceedingly astute, and he was famous for his ability to inspire an author to produce the best that was in him or her. More a friend to his authors than a taskmaster, he aided them in every way. He helped them structure their books, if help was needed; thought up titles, invented plots; he served as psychologist, lovelorn adviser, marriage counselor, career manager, money-lender. Few editors before him had done so much work on manuscripts, yet he was always faithful to his credo, “The book belongs to the author.”
Perkins seemed to have known what he wanted from the start. In 1910, after a short stint as a reporter at The New York Times, the 24-year-old Perkins became an advertising manager at Scribner’s, esteemed publisher of the likes of Edith Wharton, John Galsworthy, and Henry James. Within five years he moved up to editor; four years later he made his first career-making find. A manuscript, The Romantic Egoist, a first novel by a 22-year-old Princeton grad, arrived on his desk with negative comments from every other reader. But Perkins saw something he liked. He had to cajole F. Scott Fitzgerald into rewriting the manuscript twice before he could persuade Scribner’s to publish it. Perkins’s winning argument, as recorded by Berg, resonates with every editor who has ever pushed passionately for a book: “If we aren’t going to publish a talent like this, it is a very serious thing,” Perkins reasoned. Fitzgerald would find another publisher, young authors would follow him and, Perkins warned, “Then we might as well go out of business.”

This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920 with advertising citing Fitzgerald as “the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s has ever published a novel.” It became Scriber’s biggest seller of the season, selling almost 35,000 copies in its first seven months. In The Smart Set H. L. Mencken hailed it as “a truly amazing first novel—original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with brilliancy that is as rare in American writing as honesty is in American statecraft.”

Perkins was right that other young writers would follow. In 1924 Fitzgerald tipped Perkins off to a “young American living in France who wrote for the transatlantic review” and two years later Perkins would publish 27-year-old Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Two years later Perkins would be the only editor in New York to discern in the hundreds upon hundreds of manuscript pages of O Lost the novel Scribner’s would publish as Look Homeward, Angel by 27-year-old Thomas Wolfe.

Many other authors benefited from the Perkins magic. When acid-penned novelist Dawn Powell left Farrar & Rinehart in 1939, working with Perkins led to her first commercially successful novel, A Time To Be Born, perhaps most notorious because its central character is based loosely on playwright-journalist-socialite Claire Booth Luce. Perkins was prescient about Powell’s staying power: when she died in 1965 nearly all of her books were out of print; then in the 1980s and 1990s she enjoyed a lively rediscovery.

In the course of his career Perkins would edit many other authors of renown: Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Martha Gellhorn, James Jones, Ring Lardner, J. P. Marquand, Alan Paton, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Edmund Wilson, and more. Writers who worked with Perkins distinguish his approach from editors who rewrite or excise an author’s work. “He never tells you what to do,” Roger Burlingame explained to Malcolm Cowley for a New Yorker profile of Perkins. “Instead, he suggests to you, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself.”

Perkins is soon due to return to the public eye in a major way: Sean Penn is slated to portray him in a new biopic based on Berg’s biography. And he continues to be the touchstone figure for what an editor can do for an author. Just last week Joshua Wolf Shenk invoked his example in his essay for Slate about the science of creativity.

Related LOA works: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories 1920-1922; Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942

Friday, September 17, 2010

223 years ago today, 39 delegates signed the new U.S. Constitution

In May 1787 delegates from twelve states gathered in Philadelphia to begin the process of revising the Articles of Confederation (Rhode Island abstained). To ensure a free expression of opinions the proceedings were kept secret, but we know much of what transpired from James Madison’s detailed diary. In the course of often heated exchanges the delegates decided that what the country needed was not to amend the Articles but to design a new framework for the government and draft an entirely new Constitution.

After a long hot summer of debate the forty-two delegates met on Monday, September 17, 1787, with one item on the agenda: to sign the new Constitution. William Jackson, the convention secretary, read the final version. Then Benjamin Franklin rose. Eighty-one years old, he had not missed one session, but he was now too weak and thus handed his prepared speech to his friend James Wilson to deliver. It said, in part:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig'd, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others....

In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administred.... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does....
George Washington’s signature appears at the top. Thirty-eight delegates signed below, state by state, with Jackson witnessing their signatures. Three delegates refused to sign without a Bill of Rights: Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

The Convention then submitted the document to the states for ratification. So began the bitter, sometimes rancorous nationwide fracas (even sparking unruly mob scenes such as the “riot” in Carlisle, PA) chronicled in the two Library of America volumes, The Debate on the Constitution.

According to Article VII of the new document, nine of the thirteen states were required to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect. Delaware was the first to ratify, on December 7, by a unanimous vote (30–0). Federalists vied with antifederalists to lobby state legislators, and elsewhere the votes were often close; in Massachusetts the margin was 187 to 168. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788, and on March 4, 1789, the new national government began operations. Rhode Island was the last of the thirteen states to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

On September 25, 1789, to address the concerns of the antifederalists—a vociferous cross-section of many citizens across the country—about “fundamental principles of human liberty,” James Madison introduced into the First Congress of the United States the Bill of Rights. With Virginia’s ratification on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments to the Constitution and the law of the land.

Read Wilson Carey McWilliams on how the Constitution reflected a “new science of politics.”

Related LOA works: The Debate on the Constitution (two volumes); James Madison: Writings

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Poet Samuel Menashe turns 85 today: “Every word has to count”

Samuel Menashe writes concise poems. Sometimes just three or five lines, rarely more than twelve. He’s been doing this for more than fifty years. “Sometimes a poem may go through decades until I finally get the word that makes the poem.” Today is his eighty-fifth birthday.

Menashe wasn’t always a poet. As he describes it: “One night in February 1949 [he was 25], I woke up in the middle of the night and there was the first line of a poem, entirely unforeseen.” Menashe published his first poem in The Yale Review seven years later and found that, while he could get published in poetry magazines, landing an American publisher eluded him. British poets, however, immediately took to his work. No sooner had he shown his work to poet Kathleen Raine and other British poets than he had a publisher. No Jerusalem But This was published in the UK in 1961 and several other books followed.

In 2005 the Poetry Foundation honored Menashe with its first Neglected Masters Award, which came with a $50,000 prize and a book contract: Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems was published by The Library of America in its American Poets Project series in 2005.

In his introduction to New and Selected Poems editor and poet Christopher Ricks tries to find the most fitting term for the kind of poems Menashe writes:
These are short poems that are not . . . epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work. Yet these are poems that do belong within wisdom literature, that of the Psalms, say, or of Blake’s shorter poems.
“Wisdom literature” seems apt for a poet who likes to face difficult questions in as few words as possible, as he does in “Autobiography”:
Who is mother
Of more than one
Is not the same
As the mother
Of an only son
Who never became
Anyone’s father—
Still only a son
As an old man—
What I have not done
Made me who I am.
Menashe writes his poems to be read and no one reads his poems better than Menashe. As poet Donald Davie has written:
The one and only style of reading that I know of, which forces the reader to attend to each and every syllable in what he hears, is the reading-style of Samuel Menashe.

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him

Hearing Menashe read [this]—eleven words, fourteen syllables—is to understand what it means in practice for a poet to compose by the syllable. The voice is enviably rich in timbre and resonance, but what matters is that it is exactly controlled.... Hearing it read by Menashe is an experience unlike any other known to me; when the poem has been performed, one has the illusion (and perhaps it isn’t illusory after all) of having heard a very long poem indeed, and a very elaborate one.
Reviewing New and Selected Poems in Poetry Review, David Morley admired “Samuel Menashe’s integrity of perception, his self-possessed seriousness, and the precise, often playful awareness of the importance of space—space as another means for stating, imparting, whispering.” (Listen to Menashe read several of his poems. )

Last year Menashe was filmed in the Greenwich Village walkup he has lived in for the past fifty years for the NPR series, “Know Your Neighbor.”

Related LOA works: Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter on the Passenger Pigeon

Right: John James Audubon, "Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius"

Born on this date in 1789, James Fenimore Cooper was not only America’s first professional novelist but the creator, in The Pioneers (1823), his first of five Leatherstocking novels, of what Matthew Wynn Sivils calls [PDF] “one of the first works of environmental American literature.” Thirteen years before Emerson’s Nature and thirty-one years before Thoreau’s Walden, The Pioneers broke sales records by selling 3,500 copies before noon on the day of publication.

In one of the novel’s most memorable passages Natty Bumppo—the main character who will also go by the names Leatherstocking, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, and Hawkeye over the five novels—witnesses the entire town of Templeton gathering to assault an incoming flock of passenger pigeons:
So prodigious was the number of the birds that the scattering fire of the guns, with the hurling of missiles and the cries of the boys, had no other effect than to break off small flocks from the immense masses that continued to dart along the valley, as if the whole of the feathered tribe were pouring through that one pass. None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.

Leatherstocking was a silent but uneasy spectator of all these proceedings, but was able to keep his sentiments to himself until he saw the introduction of the swivel [a cannon filled with buckshot] into the sports.

“This comes of settling a country!” he said—“here have I known the pigeon to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skeart or to hurt them. I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body, hurting nothing—being, as it was, as harmless as a garter-snake. But now it gives me some thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it’s only a motion to bring out all the brats of the village.”
Bumppo warns that the townsfolks’ “wasty ways” will have consequences—and his prediction will come true; within a century the passenger pigeon will become extinct, mostly because of overhunting.

The size of the flocks of passenger pigeons in the nineteenth century was a continual source of wonder. In his entry on the bird in Ornithological Biography (1831–39) John James Aububon marvels at a flock passing overhead:
The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.
Audubon’s account of a hunting party’s ambush of passenger pigeons returning to their roost trees in Kentucky in 1813 bears an eerie likeness to Cooper’s scene:
As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful, almost terrifying sight presented itself.
The last passenger pigeon in captivity, “Martha,” died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. In “The Last Passenger Pigeon” the novelist and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter encounters a lone rare wild passenger pigeon outside Cincinnati in 1910:
Its eyes were big and liquid and it constantly turned its head in all direction. As it struck the wire it uttered a queer cry. It was not in the least like the notes of doves or pigeons. It was in a high key and it was a questioning note. As nearly as I could translate it into words it cried “See? See? See?” in hurried utterance. . . The bird might very well have been crying “See? See? See what you have done to me? . . . Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, today I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of any kind! See what you have done to me? See! See! See!”
Because of its sudden change from ubiquitous to extinct, the passenger pigeon is a frequent topic for environmental blog posts. Tina Bay writes about the pigeon’s possible connection to Lyme disease, Mark Gelbart weighs in on the controversy over possible previous fluctuations in passenger pigeon populations, and Delmar Dustpan’s recent post quotes Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Passenger Pigeons.”

Related LOA works: James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales (in two volumes); John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings; American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (includes “The Last Passenger Pigeon”)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Presidents and the classics

The recent spate of articles over President Obama’s summer reading prompts an inquiry into how well acquainted our presidents have been with classic American literature.

In 2009 the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York organized a display of books Barack Obama read in his twenties. The Curious Autodidact offers the complete list of 54 books, in which we find three books by Philip Roth, two each by James Baldwin and Herman Melville, and works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Richard Wright, plus The Collected Writings of Thomas Jefferson and The Federalist Papers.

A recent post at Robin Bates's blog, On Better Living Through Beowulf, plumbs this list for meaning, wondering “what Obama would see in the ‘I’d prefer not to’ Bartleby” but thinking that in Benito Cereno he might see slaves “doing a complicated dance to present an acceptable face to the outside world.” Bates wonders, “Is Obama more a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian, a populist or a federalist? I see strains of both in his thinking.” And, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Jon Meacham apparently received the same list of Obama’s favorites via email. Meacham discerned the same “tragic sensibility” in both Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain because each listed For Whom the Bell Tolls among their favorite books: “They embrace hope but recognize the reality that life is unlikely to conform to our wishes.”

The most extensive citation of former president George W. Bush’s reading tastes appeared in Karl Rove’s famous column in The Wall Street Journal, “Bush Is a Book Lover,” in which Rove recounted the annual reading competition he had with the president. His much touted reading of Albert Camus’s The Stranger aside, Bush favored biographies and histories:
His reading [in 2008] included a heavy dose of history—including David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, Rick Atkinson's Day of Battle, Hugh Thomas's Spanish Civil War, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg and David King's Vienna 1814. There's also plenty of biography—including U. S. Grant's Personal Memoirs; Jon Meacham's American Lion; James M. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.
The Clinton Library has posted a list of some of former president William Clinton’s 21 favorite books. In addition to histories and biographies, there are several American classics: The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. It seems odd to find William Faulkner missing from this list since Gabriel Garcia Marquez posted a memorable account of a dinner he and Carlos Fuentes had with Clinton in 1995. When the conversation turned to favorite books:
Clinton said his was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's stellar novel, no question, although others would choose Light in August for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji's monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from The Sound and the Fury.
Jennifer Schuessler recently asked, “Are You Reading What He’s Reading?” in The New York Times. Her assessment of President Obama’s reading tastes led her back to Theodore Roosevelt, who, if not our best-read president, was certainly the only one to confess that “now and then one’s soul thirsts for laughter,” as he does in A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open:
Now and then one’s soul thirsts for laughter.... Mark Twain at his best stands a little apart, almost as much so as Joel Chandler Harris. Oliver Wendell Holmes, of course, is the laughing philosopher, the humorist at his highest, even if we use the word “humor” only in its most modern and narrow sense.... If any man feels too gloomy about the degeneracy of our people from the standards of their forefathers, let him read Martin Chuzzlewit; it will be consoling.
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels; Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters

Monday, September 13, 2010

John Ashbery and Paul Auster at Brooklyn Book Festival; February House

The Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday brought together for an hour of conversation novelist Paul Auster, the 2007 winner of the festival’s Best of Brooklyn or “BoBi” award, and this year’s winner, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery. The BoBi is given each year to “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”

Following a reading of a few poems from Notes from the Air and of “Cities 1” from his forthcoming translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Ashbery described how he first came to New York City at the suggestion of poet and novelist Kenneth Koch. He found his first job fresh out of Harvard working as a clerk—filing books and answering the phone—at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library:
I did so miserably at that job and was so unhappy at it—though loving Brooklyn of course. I had to punch a time clock and almost every day it was red because I was staying out late in New York which I had never lived in before—having a high old time. At the end of the summer most of my time clock was printed in red. Then I got accepted at Columbia Graduate School in literature and I thought they would be very angry when I told them I wasn’t coming back. Instead they broke out in smiles and wished me well. That was the beginning of my Brooklyn experience. The collection was very good. I got a lot of reading done there—another reason they were glad to see me go.

Ashbery noted that his boss at the library had lived at February House, the curious short-lived experiment in artistic communal living in 1940–41 in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. As Sherill Tippins recounts in her book February House, the commune was launched by George Davis, just after Harper’s Bazaar fired him as editor. Starting in June 1940 Davis persuaded several of his artist friends to live and work together in the rundown building at 7 Middagh Street. In addition to John Ashbery’s boss at the library, its residents included W. H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee (who wrote a mystery, The G-String Murders, with the help of her housemates), Carson McCullers (who began The Member of the Wedding while living there), all three of Thomas Mann’s children, and later, Ellen and Richard Wright.

Ashbery also revealed that the reason many people don’t understand the reference to Coney Island in one of his poems is because it refers to the Human Pool Table ride at Luna Park, which has been torn down.

Read other recaps of the Brooklyn Book Festival from Electric Literature, Jacket Copy, The Mantle, and Library Journal.

Read The Library of America interview with John Ashbery.

Related LOA works: John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956–1987; Carson McCullers: Complete Novels

Friday, September 10, 2010

H. L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan: A Legendary Ten-Year Literary Partnership

Today many Baltimore residents will be celebrating Mencken Day, in honor of the 130th birthday of one of their most famous residents—as they do each year on the Saturday before September 12, the date of his birth in the city he lived in until his death. In commemoration of the festivities, it seems only fit to recall the friendship that launched his career.

George Jean Nathan first met H. L. Mencken when they were interviewed together in the New York offices of The Smart Set in May 1908. Mencken was twenty-eight, Nathan, twenty-six. Thomas Quinn Curtiss describes the scene in The Smart Set: George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken:
When Nathan arrived in [Norman] Boyer’s office he found the managing editor chatting with a cherub-faced, snub-nosed young man whose golden hair was parted in the middle and slapped down like a butcher’s on Sunday morning. The stranger’s clothes—a stiff, starched collar, gaudy strawberry tie, checkered suit, and yellow shoes—typified a provincial dandy or race-track tout.

On seeing Nathan the man leapt to his feet and thrust out his hand. “I’m H. L. Mencken of Baltimore,” he exclaimed, his bright, blue eyes sparkling. “I’m the biggest damned fool in Christendom and I don’t want any boastful reply that you claim the honor.”
By the fall of that year Mencken would be The Smart Set’s literary critic and Nathan its drama critic. So began one of the great literary partnerships of the twentieth century. The Smart Set had a limited budget—it paid just one cent a word—and so specialized in discovering new writers. Mencken and Nathan quickly proved such popular and prolific contributors that when new owners took over the magazine in 1914 they offered the editor position to Nathan. He agreed, “but only if Mencken comes with me.” Nathan became the senior partner, Mencken his co-editor. Together they relaunched The Smart Set, promising “to give its readers a moderately intelligent and awfully good time.”

Each issue featured some twenty short stories, ten poems, four articles, a novelette, and a play. If Mencken and Nathan couldn’t sign enough stories in time for publication they included anonymous contributions of their own under pen names. Edmund Wilson would later describe what The Smart Set meant to him as a youth:
In the spring of 1912, just before graduating from prep school, I somehow happened to pick up a copy of The Smart Set, a trashy-looking monthly, and was astonished to find audacious and extremely amusing critical articles by men named Mencken and Nathan, of whom I had never heard. I continued to read The Smart Set through college, at first with a slight feeling of guilt, for it was making fun of everything respectable in current American drama and literature.
From 1914 to 1923 Mencken and Nathan would use the magazine to publish the newest voices in American literature: Willa Cather, W.E.B. Du Bois, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nathan paid him thirty dollars for his first published story), Dashiell Hammett, Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Ezra Pound, and many more.

Mencken and Nathan developed a clear division of labor: Nathan did all the office editorial work, copyediting, and the layout of the magazine. Mencken’s job was to “keep on the lookout for good stuff.” As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers describes their working relationship in Mencken: The American Iconoclast:
Each Monday and Friday for nine years, Nathan carefully tied brown paper packets containing Smart Set manuscripts and sent them to Mencken in Baltimore. If Mencken found one he liked, he marked it “Yes” and returned it to Nathan. If Nathan liked it too, it was set in type at once, and the author’s check went out at the end of the week. If Mencken dissented, the manuscript was returned. The procedure also worked in reverse order, Mencken to Nathan. No time was wasted on discussion of manuscripts although brief written comments sometimes were included. The “No” of either was final. “The plan was so simple and so practicable that we often wondered that no other editors had ever thought of it,” commented Mencken.
It was a partnership that shouldn’t have worked. As Rodgers points out, “No two men could possibly have been more unlike in style and thought. ‘Nathan detests philosophical questions,’ Mencken said. ‘He sees life purely as an idiotic spectacle. I delight in such questions, though I reject all solutions. Nathan aims at a very complex style. I aim at the greatest possible lucidity.’”

What they shared was a passion for discovering, nurturing, and publishing the work of new American writers, for enjoying humor, and for attacking sacred cows. They also complemented each other: Mencken refused to move to New York; Nathan was very much the Manhattan man about town. Joseph L. Mankiewicz based the character of the acid-tongued ladies’ man and theater critic Addison DeWitt in All about Eve on Nathan. By the 1920s they had become such intimidating arbiters of taste that a popular ditty “Mencken, Nathan and God” satirized their stature.

“Nathan and I never took the magazine seriously,” Mencken later wrote—and it was their irreverent attitude that would prove their undoing. Having lampooned President Warren G. Harding during his presidency, they saw no reason to stop after his death in August 1923. When the printer brought their satiric parody of Harding’s funeral procession to the attention of the magazine’s conservative publisher, he exploded and declared the magazine for sale.

But Nathan and Mencken had been eager to start a magazine of their own. In 1924 they joined with young publisher Alfred Knopf to revolutionize magazine publishing with the launch of The American Mercury. Unlike The Smart Set, which was printed on cheap grade paper, the new magazine was handsome and in a larger format with no illustrations; the paper was imported Scotch featherweight, the binding sewn so that it opened flat like a book. And it didn’t just include stories, poems, and reviews: there were extended profiles of world figures, an entire section on “Arts and Sciences” with essays on medicine, architecture, and language. Although priced higher than its competitors at fifty cents, the first printing of ten thousand copies quickly sold out. By the end of the year the circulation was over 42,000; it peaked at 84,000 in 1928.

Authors flocked to the new magazine and liked what they found. James Branch Cabell explains why: “[Mencken] gives immediate attention to your manuscript, pays spot cash, encloses a return stamped envelope with the proofs and gives you second serial rights without asking.” Many of the innovations introduced by The American Mercury—extended profiles, aphorisms in the margins, and “Americana,” amusing items gleaned from newspapers and magazines across the country—soon became staples of magazine publishing.

Unfortunately, shortly after the magazine’s launch the clear division of labor Mencken and Nathan had cultivated started to unravel. Mencken wanted more social and political coverage; Nathan an equal balance of literature and the arts. More to the point, Nathan no longer cared to handle the editorial office chores. “The Smart Set was fun,” he complained. “The Mercury was a job.” Nathan resigned as co-editor but continued to contribute, come to the office, and retain his stock and seat on the board of directors. This infuriated Mencken such that he took Nathan’s name off the building’s lobby directory and had his desk moved out among the stenographers.

Yet, like a latter-day Bartleby, Nathan continued to come to work. Nathan’s behavior mystified friends and colleagues. Alfred Knopf speculated that Nathan needed Mencken more than Mencken needed Nathan. “After all,” Knopf wrote, “ the theater and H.L.M. were, I think, the two great experiences of his life.” Knopf would eventually buy out Nathan’s share in the magazine for $25,000. The stock market crash a few years later wiped out the value of the remaining stock and, Knopf later acknowledged, Nathan “was the only one to get any cash out of the magazine.”

Mencken continued as editor on The American Mercury until 1933 and Nathan continued to contribute articles until 1930. Despite their differences the friendship continued until 1932 when Mencken read the manuscript of Nathan’s memoirs. He found the chapter on him “full of malice” and errors. Even though Nathan apologized and excised all the offensive material from the published book, Mencken was adamant: “I am through with him.”

Read the Library of America interview with Marion Elizabeth Rodgers about H. L. Mencken (PDF)

Read “The Nature of Liberty” by H. L. Mencken (Story of the Week)

Read “Baiting the Umpire” by George Jean Nathan (Story of the Week)

Listen to a rare interview with H. L. Mencken (YouTube, in four parts)

Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (includes Mencken’s essay “George Jean Nathan”); The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes three essays by George Jean Nathan: “The Audience Emotion,” “On Vaudeville,” “Eugene O’Neill”)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Allen Ginsberg, Lynd Ward: The Moloch connection

The news that acclaimed scratchboard artist Eric Drooker has just published a graphic novel edition of Howl, his second illustrated book of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, brings to mind the inspiration Ginsberg drew from the stark and emblematic power of woodcut images. The haunting engravings in the Moloch section of Lynd Ward’s wordless novel Wild Pilgrimage influenced the “Moloch” section of Ginsberg’s famous 1956 poem, which includes the lines:
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long
streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose fac-
tories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose
smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
In his introduction to Illuminated Poems, the collection of thirty-four Ginsberg poems that Drooker illustrated in 1996—just a year before the poet died—Ginsberg acknowledges, “Lynd Ward’s images of the solitary artist dwarfed by the canyons of a Wall Street Megalopolis lay shadowed behind my own vision of Moloch.”

In 1978 Michael McCurdy, an accomplished wood engraver himself, commissioned Lynd Ward to create a new wood engraving to illustrate a broadside of the “Moloch” section of Howl for McCurdy’s Penmaen Press. McCurdy hand-set the broadside and hand-printed three hundred sheets, with one hundred and fifty numbered and signed by both Ward and Ginsberg. It ended up being one of Ward’s last published works. You can view an image of the 18" x 25" broadside here and a photograph of Ginsberg, McCurdy, and Ward here.

In his Library of America interview about Lynd Ward, Art Spiegelman recalls the Ginsberg connection to Ward’s Wild Pilgrimage and mentions Eric Drooker in particular as one of several artists who continue to demonstrate that “the power of Ward’s vocabulary is alive and well.” In a 2003 Comics Journal interview Drooker confirms that “I was deeply moved by [Ward’s] art, and inspired by the social realism in his work.” This month’s release of Drooker’s new book coincides with the release on September 24 of the new motion picture Howl; Drooker created the animated art in the film, which features James Franco as Ginsberg and Treat Williams as the critic Mark Schorer.

Readers curious about Lynd Ward’s other work can view his wood engravings for Frankenstein and the opening sequence of his wordless novel, Gods' Man.

Related LOA works: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (boxed set); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Ginsberg’s “Mugging” and “Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters”)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Elia Kazan, director of many of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century

Coinciding with Elia Kazan’s 101st birthday today is Martin Scorsese’s recent release of a new documentary, Letter to Elia, which will be screened at The New York Film Festival on September 27 and will air nationally on American Masters on PBS on October 4. The documentary focuses on classics by Kazan (Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd) that had a formative influence on Scorsese's own early work. Often less heralded are many stage hits directed by Kazan before he began making movies. Even after he was a successful filmmaker, Kazan frequently returned to New York to work with his favorite playwrights.

Kazan credits the scarcity of directors in New York during World War II for the career-making opportunity that fell his way in 1942. When he visited his draft board after the attack on Pearl Harbor Kazan discovered he was 3-A due to his age (32), his wife, and two kids. Shortly afterward, producer Michael Myerberg chose him to direct Thornton Wilder’s new play, The Skin of Our Teeth. Why him, Kazan wondered, and not Orson Welles or Jed Harris, director of Wilder’s previous success, Our Town. According to Kazan’s autobiography A Life, Myerberg had already assembled his cast of stars and needed a pliable young director. Kazan wanted the job but remembered, “this was the first play I directed that I found challenging beyond my talent and technique.” He was surprised to find the play “perfectly cast” with four established stars: Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March, Florence March, and Florence Reed—and one star-to-be in Montgomery Clift. Managing Bankhead’s star-sized ego proved to be Kazan’s biggest challenge. He marks their epic shouting match the night before opening as the moment he discovered how to use his inner rage: “It was then that I became a director.”

Rave reviews vied with savage attacks to make Teeth “the play that most enlivened the state of drama” in 1942 according to Lewis Nichols in his year-end roundup for The New York Times.

Working with Arthur Miller in 1946 and 1947 on the original Broadway production of All My Sons taught Kazan how effective working directly with a playwright could be—and he adopted this approach going forward. The process worked: All My Sons ran for 328 performances and won Tony Awards for Miller as author and Kazan as director. Tennessee Williams was so impressed by the directing of All My Sons that he insisted to his agent and producer that Kazan direct his new play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Knowing this enabled Kazan to negotiate for 20% of the proceeds and the credit line, “Irene Selznick presents Elia Kazan’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The 1947 production of Streetcar is now legendary for introducing 23-year-old Marlon Brando to the world as the swaggering Stanley Kowalski. Kazan had been impressed with Brando’s work in a small part in a Maxwell Anderson drama he had produced the year before. He gave Brando twenty dollars to take a bus to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to read for Williams. Brando decided to use the money to eat, hitchhiked to Provincetown, and didn’t arrive until three days later—but the reading was a smash and Kazan records receiving “an ecstatic call from our author, in a voice near hysteria. Brando had overwhelmed him.” Jessica Tandy won the role of Blanche Du Bois when Kazan and Williams saw her in Los Angeles in Portrait of a Madonna, an earlier Williams play produced by her husband Hume Cronyn. “It was instantly apparent,” Williams wrote, “that Jessie was Blanche.”

Streetcar ran 855 performances. Jessica Tandy won the 1948 Tony Award for best actress and the play won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Considering the fame Streetcar brought him, Kazan is comparatively modest about his contribution to the play’s success in A Life:
There was no way to spoil Streetcar. No matter who directed it, with what concept, what cast, in what language, it was always hailed, often as “better than the original production.” What could I say to that? Bravo, Tennessee.
David Denby, in his review of A Life in The New York Review of Books thinks Kazan had exactly the mix of sensibilities to get the balance between Stanley and Blanche right:
In A Life, Kazan repeatedly deplores his own vacillating and compromising temperament, but perhaps this weakness added peculiar strengths to his skills as a director. Kazan could be sympathetic to both Stanley Kowalski’s brute appetite and Blanche Du Bois’s self-delusions perhaps because he saw both in his own character. A man of more coherent temper might not have understood the play so well.
Miller and Kazan had become close friends after the production of All My Sons. After Miller sent Kazan the script of Death of a Salesman in July, 1948 he wrote “I didn’t move from the phone for two days.” Kazan’s response was immediate: “Your play killed me.” He wanted to direct it that season. As Kazan wrote, “We understood each other immediately. I was for a time the perfect director for him and this showed most in Death of a Salesman, which is a play that dealt with experiences I knew well in my own life.” Yet, despite their affinity, they differed on the casting of Willy Loman. Miller envisioned Willy a small man. But Kazan knew Lee Cobb. They had been young actors together and, though Cobb at thirty-seven was twenty-five years younger than Willy, Kazan knew Cobb to be
a mass of contradictions: loving and hateful, anxious yet still supremely pleased with himself, smug but full of doubt, guilty and arrogant, fiercely competitive but very withdrawn, publicly private, suspicious but always reaching for trust, boastful with a modest air, begging for total acceptance no matter what he did to others. In other words, the part was him; I knew that Willy was in Cobb, there to be pulled out.
Death of a Salesman opened in February 1949, ran for 742 performances, and won six Tony Awards, including best author for Miller, best director for Kazan, and best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy as Biff. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949.

Kazan would go on to direct the original Broadway productions of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real in 1953 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 with Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie and Burl Ives as Big Daddy (the play won another Pulitzer for Williams and Kazan got another Tony); Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959 with Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, and Rip Torn (Tonys for Kazan, Page, Torn), and the original production of Miller’s After the Fall (with Jason Robards and Barbara Loden) in 1964 at Lincoln Center.

Related LOA works: Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater; Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955; Arthur Miller: Collected Plays: 1944-1961

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sarah Orne Jewett, “unsurpassed chronicler and interpreter of women’s lives”

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909) turns 161 today. She was just 19 when she published her first story in the Atlantic Monthly (accepted by then assistant editor William Dean Howells). Over the next thirty-five years she would build a devoted readership through her twenty novels and story collections, each filled with carefully wrought portraits of the farmers, fishermen, and tradespeople she lived among along the coast of southern Maine. Writing about her first novel, Deephaven (1877), Howells discerned “an uncommon feeling for talk—I hear your people.”

For a more than a century, critics have acclaimed the interlaced stories of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) as her masterpiece. Here she populates the fictional town of Dunnett Landing, a composite of coastal towns around Boothbay Harbor, with a memorable cast of colorful characters: a fiercely independent herbalist landlady, a garrulous retired sailor, a jilted, lovelorn young woman, among many others. Rudyard Kipling wrote her: “It’s immense—It’s the very life. So many of the people of less sympathy have missed the lovely New England landscape, and the genuine New England nature. I don’t believe even you know how good the work is.”

Willa Cather counted The Country of the Pointed Firs as one of three books destined for literary immortality, alongside The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “No other [books] confront time and change so serenely.” “The 'Pointed Fir' sketches are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and air-spaces about them,” Cather wrote in her introduction to a two-volume collection of Jewett's work in 1925. “They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself.”

Sarah Orne Jewett came into Willa Cather’s life at a critical moment. As Hermione Lee notes in her biography Willa Cather: Double Lives:
Though some of her few close friends, such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher or Zoë Akins, were writers, [Cather] did not meet, or admit much interest in, the other great writers of her time, Edith Wharton or Ellen Glasgow or Gertrude Stein, and was dismissive of the only other well-known Nebraskan woman writer, Mari Sandoz. The one exception to this isolation was her brief friendship, of great formative importance for Cather’s life and writing, with the New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, which came when Jewett was in her late fifties and Cather had not yet begun to write novels.

Jewett gave Cather crucial advice about the concentration and single-mindedness needed to become a good writer. But it was her example, as well as her advice, which was important for Cather ... she warmed to Jewett’s unselfconscious, matter-of-fact love stories between women, in the sad and beautiful story “Martha’s Lady” or in the novel Deephaven.... That innocent, idealized intimacy between women, which enabled Jewett to tell Cather that she did not need to use a male narrator to describe feelings of love for a woman, was not open to the more self-conscious and self-concealing Cather. But the example Jewett gave her, at the time she most needed it, was of a woman’s writing that was strong, truthful, and authentic, and could not be dismissed as “merely” feminine.
Cather had met Jewett in 1908 at what Henry James described as the “waterside museum” at 148 Charles Street in Boston. This was the home where Annie Fields, widow of Atlantic Monthly editor James T. Fields, and Jewett had been keeping their “Boston marriage” for some twenty-five years. In fact, some readers chided James because they found his portrayal of Olive Chancellor and her young ward Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians objectionably close to Fields and Jewett. Cather captured the old-world charm of the house in her brief sketch “148 Charles Street,” and in “Miss Jewett” she set down her appreciation of Jewett’s work as well as a portrait of her in person:
“The distinguished outward stamp”—it was that one felt immediately upon meeting Miss Jewett: a lady, in the old high sense. It was in her face and figure, her carriage, her smile, her voice, her way of greeting one. There was an ease, a graciousness, a light touch in conversation, a delicate unobtrusive wit. You quickly recognized that her gift with the pen was one of many charming personal attributes.
In Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Work Paula Blanchard records how critical attitudes to Jewett have changed:
In recent years Jewett has become recognized by feminist scholars as an unsurpassed chronicler and interpreter of women’s lives.... Jewett’s women are not the self-effacing and compliant helpmates portrayed in the typical Victorian novel, but vigorous, independent country-women, mostly widows and spinsters, who support themselves and their children by farming, nursing, or whatever comes to hand. Warm, humorous, and practical, they are the mainstays of their families and communities, keeping alive not only the gardens that symbolize their vitality but also the ties of sympathy that hold any human society together.
You can read Jewett's story, “Going to Shrewsbury,” available free at LOA's Story of the Week site.

Related LOA works: Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories; Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (includes "148 Charles Street" and "Miss Jewett")

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

W. H. Auden, A. J. Liebling: September 1 writings frame World War II in Europe

The nonaggression pact signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, between Germany and the Soviet Union included a secret clause providing for the partition of Poland between the two signing powers. On September 1, German tanks and planes invaded Poland on three fronts and World War II began. The outbreak stirred W. H. Auden, 32 and newly arrived in the United States in January, to write one of his most anthologized poems, “September 1, 1939,” first published in The New Republic on October 18 of that year.

Set in “one of the dives/On Fifty-Second Street” the 99-line poem attempts to locate the individual’s place in the world historical order. Whether Auden actually wrote it in a Manhattan bar or in the home of the father of his lover Chester Kallman is a matter of some dispute. In later years, as Auden moved away from politics, he came to disown the poem, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” especially its most famous stanza:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
The last line of this stanza—its most quoted line—troubled Auden the most, since we die whether we love one another or not. At one point, in granting permission to Oscar Williams to reprint the poem in an anthology in 1955, Auden changed the line to “We must love one another and die.”

Listen to Dylan Thomas read “September 1, 1939.”
Read the entire poem.

Five years later, on September 1, 1944, A. J. Liebling dispatched one of his most famous “Letters from Paris.” The Allied Forces had liberated Paris on August 25 and Liebling captures the joy and relief of a city transformed: “For the first time in my life and probably the last, I have lived for a week in a great city where everybody is happy. Moreover, since the city is Paris, everybody makes this euphoria manifest.”

As Liebling details how different factions in Paris came together to defeat their occupiers, his account can almost be seen as a response to the charge in Auden’s poem:
Happiest of all . . . are the police, who stand at street intersections with their thumbs in their belts and beam paternally at everybody instead of looking stern and important, as they used to. . . . For Paris, where the street cry has always been “A bas les flics!” (Down with the cops!), this is behavior so unprecedented that the cops sometimes look as though they think it is all a dream. There is good reason for the change of heart; for the first time since Etienne Marcel led a street mob against the royal court in about 1350, the police and the people have been on the same side of the barricades. It was the police who, on August 15th, gave the signal for a mass disregard of the Germans by going on strike. It was also the police who, four days later, began the street fighting by seizing the Prefecture of the Seine, their headquarters. . . . Three thousand of them, in plainclothes and armed with carbines, revolvers, and a few sub-machine guns, took the place over and defended it successfully for six days before being relieved by the arrival of the French armored division of General Leclerc.
Aiding the police were “boys fourteen or fifteen years old” who destroyed tanks by throwing bottles of incendiary fluid through their ports. “The youngsters who did the fighting were not always of the type that is ordinarily on good terms with the police. They included problem children of every neighborhood as well as students and factory workers. So the oldest of all Paris feuds has ended.”

Read the entire “Letter from Paris, September 1, 1944” (PDF).

Related LOA works: Poets of World War II; A. J. Liebling: World War II Writings
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